Here is the eighth poem in my 52-poem sequence (one a week) for 2013, followed by some illumination and reflection:
some nights you get undressed
like throwing off memories
discarding clothes of useless past
garments of truths beginning to decay
until in that primeval nakedness again
you lie down always forever the last time
turning over sheets of waves and stars
and rolling fields of home waving goodbye
to lie at peace at last; embrace the earth
and weep into forgetful pillows
This is probably the saddest poem I have ever written. I was about 22 or 23, and I had contemplated suicide occasionally. Friedrich Nietzsche’s advice was that “the thought of suicide got me through many a bad night”, and there’s more wisdom in that than at first seems. I’m pleased to see that among the bloggers following this sequence over the last month have been people interested in psychiatry and clinical depression. One of the worst things about melancholy and depression is how we imagine them to be useless, worthless things, a waste of our time and life, instead of viewing them in positive terms: as the source of the best of all artistic inspiration across history. The great, and emancipatory challenge for all of us, is to forge our sorrow into beauty. That is our revenge against the apparent indifference and injustice of the universe, our shot at a miracle with which to transcend our mortality. And that’s not about self-aggrandisement. It’s about reaching out to, and moving, other people, comforting them with your perspective.
Here’s what Rainer Maria Rilke has to say about sadness in the tenth of his remarkable ‘Duino Elegies’(1923):
“…How we squander our sorrows, gazing beyond them, into the sad
wastes of duration, to see if maybe, they have a limit.
But they are our winter foliage, our dark evergreens
one of the seasons of our secret year –and not only a season
they are situation, settlement, lair, soil, home…”
Who else but Vincent Van Gogh could I choose to provide an image or two for this post? His last words to his brother Theo were “The sadness will last forever”. And so it has. But it has also blossomed into universal appreciation. A visit to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam is one of the most uncanny and inspiring experience open to anyone alive today. Powerful evidence of how a man can transcend his own life and death through art, through reaching out to others. Vincent felt trapped inside his own body, too much of an individual. But this was an illusion, as it is for each of us. Our physical appearance is a red herring. We are all connected to each other by something invisibly shared. How else to explain the madness that will engulf any man marooned on an island? We are each more than just ourselves.
I am amazed by how few people seem to have ever seen the film ‘Lust for Life’ (1956, directed by Vincente Minnelli) in which Kirk Douglas gave the performance of his life as Vincent Van Gogh. Along with ‘Shenandoah’ (1965) it remains one of the few films I weep through like a girl, no matter how many times I see it.
Lastly, on the subject of what we might call “productive sadness” a friend of mine drew my attention this week to a fascinating website called ‘The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows ‘ by a freelance graphic designer in Minnesota, called John Koenig. In the same way as Italo Calvino named and invented numerous non-existent cities in his 1972 classic novel ‘Invisible Cities’, Koenig has set about naming a whole series of nuances of melancholy, and fittingly: the project is ongoing.